Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Dave Duncan

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Ten Questions, with Dave Duncan

Dave Duncan, author of over 40 novels in genres that span fantasy, science fiction, historical and YA, talks to Open Book about the writing life, the reputation of genre fiction and his newest book, Pock's World, published this fall with EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.

Open Book:

What was the inspiration for your new novel, Pock's World?

Dave Duncan:

I don't remember. It could have been a character, or a plot idea or an opening scene. Any of those can act like the grain of sand in the oyster — pestering, irritating, refusing to go away. Oysters wrap their troubles in layers of pearl. Writers are eventually forced to wrap them in words.

The reason I don't remember in this case is that I began writing Pock's World back in 2003. Only very rarely do I ever write a novel straight through from start to finish. Something always interrupts me, usually a deadline or page proofs for another book, so I lay the work aside and come back to it later. The fresh look at what I have written is a helpful part of the progress. In this case, the gap was very long. I didn't return to Pock's World until 2008. It read so well that I had to finish it and find out how it ended. I still have several half-written books in my computer, awaiting completion. From that point of view I sometimes think I'm still a “beginning” writer.

OB:

Although you write mainly fantasy, you also write science fiction, historical fiction, and YA novels. How does your writing process differ when you are writing in different genres?

DD:

Not much. Writing is done with words, regardless of topic. Historical settings and science fiction both require research. Fantasy demands consistency. If a character can walk through walls in Chapter 1, how do you keep him in jail in Chapter 10? (Call that the Kryptonite problem.) My Alchemist trilogy involved a detective solving murders in 16th century Venice, with enough fantasy thrown in so that my publisher wouldn't insist I use a pen name, but not so much that it would make nonsense of the "whodunit" element. I had to do a huge amount of research on Venice, although I admit I enjoyed doing so. When a world is wholly invented, I do the research in reverse, making copious notes as I go along. Computers are great for that!

When HarperCollins asked me to write a YA trilogy set in my King's Blades world I asked how one wrote YA. I was told to keep it moving, leave out sex and bad language, and not to go over 45,000 words or boys wouldn't read it. That was before Harry Potter changed the rules, obviously. (If I am allowed to insert a commercial break here, those books have just been reissued as a single volume: The Monster War, A Tale of the King's Blades.

OB:

Do you map out your novels before you begin to write, or do you allow the details of the plot to emerge as you go?

DD:

I do both. I know the beginning, obviously, but I learned early on to work out the ending before I start writing. A journey requires a destination. Other than that, I let the story flow and enjoy the scenery. The characters emerge as needed and introduce themselves. Very rarely one will demand a bigger part. I think it was Graham Greene who said that he would feel like a typist if he worked out all the details before he wrote the text. That said, I strongly believe that there are two separate skills involved in storytelling: you make it up and you write it down. If I run into writer's block, it is because I haven't thought long enough about what is supposed to be happening next and how.

OB:

You had a career as a petroleum geologist before you took up writing. What was it that caused you to pick up your pen?

DD:

After thirty years I had grown very bored with doing the same thing all the time. As a child I used to scribble stories in notebooks (although I'm sure I never finished any). I tried writing a novel and found that it was fun. Sent one out. Rewrote it as a trilogy and sent that out. Wrote another stand-alone and sent that out. Got caught in a downturn of the oil business and found myself out of work. Got a call two weeks later from New York offering to buy A Rose-Red City. As soon as that contract was signed, I sent them Shadow and they bought that too.

OB:

You're now a very prolific author with over 40 books to your name. How do you manage to produce so many great books?

DD:

I enjoy doing it. The guys I went to school with all retired years ago. I don't want to.

OB:

Describe an average writing day for us.

DD:

I usually rise early, check email and the news on the computer. Breakfast with the Globe and Mail, then write. First I correct what I did the previous day, then try to do 500 words. Shower, dress, empty the dishwasher (one of my chores) and then hopefully write another 500. In the afternoon I attend to other things. I used to produce 2000 words a day or more but now 1000 is about my limit. I print out a hard copy of what I've done and read it over a few times later in the day, editing it. That's where I start the next morning. I find I edit better on paper than on a screen.

OB:

Who are your favourite writers?

DD:

John Keegan, Ken McGoogan, Ian Mortimer, Brian Sykes, Peter Turchin, Peter Ward, Simon Winchester. Not all of them write fiction, but I prefer not to discriminate between those who do.

OB:

Some writers (and readers) feel that spec fiction, science fiction and fantasy are not given the critical attention they deserve. What is your opinion about this?

DD:

Yes, there is a lot of snobbery in the writing business (or art). Academics despise anything with plot in it. Popular writers despise anything without. I know fans of SF who look down on fantasy stories, and fantasy fans who regard SF with contempt. To be realistic, newspapers will review what they think their readers will read: mystery stories get reviewed and so do computer games (or anything by a celebrity). I think my work has been well treated. I am regularly reviewed by Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Romantic Times, Locus, and several online magazines. Fans' opinions on Amazon carry a lot of weight nowadays, and my rating average is never below four stars.

OB:

What one book — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write, and why?

DD:

The Iliad. Every technique and situation found in modern fiction is right there. No single work contains so many immortal characters: Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Zeus, Paris, Helen... Even the Trojan cannon fodder (the red-shirt guys we call them now) are given histories and personalities. And there is science fiction: Hephaestus has robots to help him in his workshop.

OB:

What are you working on now?

DD:

Two stand-alone novels. One is a fantasy set during the Counter Reformation and the other a space adventure with some kinky sex which may scare editors away. In other words, both are out of the box and may never find a market. (Neither is contracted, because I hate deadlines.) But I am enjoying writing them.


Originally from Scotland, Dave Duncan has lived all his adult life in Western Canada, having enjoyed a long career as a petroleum geologist before taking up writing. Since discovering that imaginary worlds are more satisfying than the real one, he has published more than forty novels, mostly in the fantasy genre, but also young adult, science fiction and historical. Visit his website at daveduncan.com.

For more information about Pock's World please visit the EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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